For Fleck, advice over lunch from Fitzgerald still resonates
By Andrew Seligman
AP Sports Writer
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — All those years later, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck recalls the advice about running a program he got from Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald over lunch.
It still resonates to this day.
“‘Just make sure you don’t manage anybody,'” Fleck recalls Fitzgerald telling him. “‘Make sure you lead people. Managing, we manage machines. We lead people.’ And that was the greatest quote that I could have learned at the time to become the leader of whatever I wanted to become.”
Fleck and Fitzgerald will be on opposite sidelines rather than opposite ends of the table when Minnesota visits Northwestern on Saturday. The Golden Gophers (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) are trying to become bowl-eligible while the Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) aim for their sixth straight win.
Fleck was hired by Minnesota in January following a four-year run at Western Michigan that made him one of the hottest coaching commodities. He took the program from 1-11 in 2013 to 13-1 with a Cotton Bowl appearance in 2016, capping a spectacular season that actually started with a win at Northwestern.
But another meeting years earlier stands out to Fleck.
He remembers being in his first year as wide receivers coach at his alma mater Northern Illinois with an eye on running his own program when Fitzgerald took him to lunch in Evanston.
“I knew I wanted to be head coach a long time ago, but I just wanted to know what it was like to be a head coach,” Fleck said. “And I knew I wanted to get around people that I wanted to kind of be like. And I always looked up to him.”
Here are some things to know as Northwestern takes on Minnesota:
Fitzgerald has a shot at a second 10-win season in three years, assuming the Wildcats beat Minnesota, struggling Illinois and whoever they play in a bowl. Not bad for a team that got off to a 2-3 start. Northwestern became the first FBS program to play three straight overtime games and win them all before beating Purdue 23-13 in regulation last week. The Gophers can almost certainly forget about playing in a bowl if they lose on Saturday. That’s because they meet No. 5 Wisconsin in next week’s finale.
“They’ve done a really good job of matching what they want to do and how they want to do things, a lot like (Purdue coach Jeff Brohm) last week, but then tweaking it to what their players do best,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that’s the mark of great coaches.
Northwestern career rushing leader Justin Jackson needs 156 yards to join Wisconsin great Ron Dayne as the only Big Ten players with four 1,000-yard seasons. Jackson had 46 yards on 25 carries against Purdue.
CONFIDENCE IN CROFT
Demry Croft had a breakout game for the Gophers in last week’s 54-21 pounding of Nebraska , setting the program record for a quarterback with 183 yards rushing. He scored three times and also completed 9 of 15 passes for 105 yards. Croft was suspended from the team for three weeks earlier in the season for an off-the-field issue, but he has worked his way back into Fleck’s good graces after replacing Conor Rhoda as the starter last month.
“I’m very proud of him and the progress he has shown since coming back from his suspension. It’s been rapid,” Fleck said, adding: “He’s kind of squeezed all the juice from the orange and that, and hopefully he’s learned enough to continue to move forward.”
Northwestern has shut down the run after a shaky start. The Wildcats went from allowing 375 yards over the first two games to 721 yards over the last eight while holding each opponent under its season average. Northwestern ranks seventh in the nation against the run.
The Gophers gained 409 yards rushing against Nebraska, the most they’ve had in one game since Oct. 15, 2005, against Wisconsin, and 6-foot-10, 280-pound tight end Nate Wozniak played a big role in the blocking. The senior from Greenwood, Indiana, favored football over basketball in high school for the chance to “hit people” without fouling out. He picked the Gophers because they wanted him as a tight end, not a tackle as other teams recruiting him preferred.